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Travis County builds interest in courts complex development plan

Thursday, August 6, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has determined that a plan to let private developers build a second tower that would complement the proposed $291.6 Civil & Family Courts Complex is “extremely attractive.”

According to the team steering the courts complex project, a forum held in July to gauge interest from area firms was well attended.

“About 60 attendees essentially representing about 50 companies were there,” George Tapas from URS Corporation reported to the commissioners. “It was very diverse. It included developers, construction firms, engineering firms and HUB contractors as well.”

That private companies would express interest in building on one of the last undeveloped blocks in red-hot downtown Austin might not surprise many, but it no doubt brings a sigh of relief to supporters of the courts complex proposal. Keen to find ways to take some of the bite out of its current price tag, the court is betting on a plan that would cash in from a second private tower on the site.

The rough idea is that, if voters approve the courts complex bond in November, the county would lease to a private developer the air rights on the southern half of the block at W. Fourth and Guadalupe streets. In addition to the lease revenue, the county would also collect property taxes from the office tower that the developer would then in theory build alongside the courthouse.

Project manager Belinda Powell told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that her team is still working with the Commissioners Court to determine when and how to seek proposals or offers from developers.

“We’re still working through the nuts and bolts of that, but we certainly wouldn’t be looking for anything to come back until the end of the year or maybe even the January time frame,” Powell said.

Tapas told the commissioners on Tuesday that he had four key areas of concerns that he wanted the attendees at the July forum to answer: potential risk factors of building the south tower; the appropriate parking ratios for the office building; whether to build parking underground, aboveground, or both; and how to optimize the tower within the neighborhood and surrounding development.

Without elaborating, Tapas noted that the responses were “varied.”

The briefing also revealed that the south tower might mitigate concerns raised by downtown advocates who argue that a 9-to-5 courthouse is a poor use for prime Central Business District real estate.

Stepping in front of calls for a mixed-use component that would keep the block “alive after 5,” Powell said of the forum: “It was very clear in our discussions that the development community understood that this type of development, even though it’s on county-owned land, that they would be permitting this project and that it would meet city’s requirements for retail on the ground floor.”

After the briefing and further discussion in executive session, the commissioners voted 4-0, with Commissioner Margaret Gomez off the dais, to direct staff to continue working on how to officially solicit offers from private developers. Commissioners will likely take up the issue again at their regular meeting next week.

Photo by Carsten aus Bonn made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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